From the Washington Post “Perspective” section:
In the Byzantine Empire, ideas of race and gender were deeply intertwined.
By Roland Betancourt
Roland Betancourt is a professor and Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of California, Irvine and author of “Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages ” (Princeton University Press, 2020).
June 16, 2021 at 3:00 a.m. PDT
When did racism begin?
I’m guessing that humans always had clan conflicts between extended families, but when people could only get around by walking, it was not that common to confront extended families that were so genealogically/genetically remote from yours that you could tell they were different by a glance at their faces (what Americans tend to think of as “race,” forgetting the family tree aspects). Clans probably dressed different and had different hairstyles and the like, so visual recognition was still easy. People did come into contact with migrating tribes that didn’t look like them 10,000 years ago, but it often wasn’t part of daily life.
Then the domestication of the horse maybe 5000 plus years ago and the development of reliable near-land sailing (when was that?) made contact between distant peoples in the same general region of the world more common. But it was more like: the Scythians are fairer than us Greeks and the Egyptians are darker, so we’re the golden mean, which means we’re best, and I’ve heard that the Ethiopians are really burnt by the sun.
Finally, the development of ocean-crossing sailing ships in the 1400s led to the modern scientific awareness of major continental-scale races: sail west for 3000 miles and you suddenly arrive in a New World with a completely different race than one we Europeans have ever seen before.
Because of how ideas about race shape our contemporary world, some have argued that racism did not exist in the ancient and medieval worlds, that it was a modern invention. Proposing that there was a past before racism helped prop up the notion that Americans were living in a post-racial present, in the decades after the Civil Rights movement.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
More than just race thinking and varied forms of racialized prejudices, the ancient and medieval world provide us with a deep legacy of anti-Blackness. This history of anti-Blackness has not only defined modern racism as we know it, but also shaped how gender and sexuality have been explained and represented for centuries. Remembering this longer history of racism and transphobia should remind us of how deeply ingrained these ideas are — and how much effort it will take to root them out.
Recognizing anti-Blackness in the deep past, particularly the Christian Middle Ages, allows us to better understand how colorist prejudices were racialized and transmitted from Ancient Greece and Rome to the modern Western world. Throughout this period, Christianity attempted to position itself as a new “race” (genos) or group of people that transcended ethnic categories and civilizations by proselytizing across the known world from India to Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has been part of Christendom since the 300s, although it was largely cut off from the rest by the rise of Islam.
But Christianity still retained the deep anti-Blackness rooted in ancient theories of racialized and gendered differences.
… Because of its lineage dating to antiquity, the Byzantine Empire provides a unique lens on how racial tropes persisted across millennia and how they were transmitted and reconceived under Christian rule.
This poor guy is thrashing about trying to stay relevant.
European visitors to Constantinople often remarked on the city’s racial diversity and commented on the darker skin of its emperors and peoples.
Not hugely darker, in general, at least until the Central Asian Ottoman emperors arrived in 1453. People in Istanbul today look not too different from people in Athens.
Surprisingly, Byzantine sources were often silent on this racialized difference, potentially taking it for granted in their cosmopolitan empire.
Yet while Byzantines were not White in the eyes of their European neighbors, they also privileged Whiteness in their descriptions of feminine beauty
Slavic slave women were much in demand in the old time Middle East, just as Oil Arabs today like blonde prostitutes.
It’s almost as if, as Peter Frost argues, the fair sex really is a little fairer than the unfair sex and thus fairness is seen as a desirable secondary sex characteristic of women, like long hair. When poets referred to the “fair sex” they weren’t calling women fair or just. (Few poets had a high opinion of the fairness of women.)
Some of it was meant worked outdoors more and thus tanned more. But there also appears to be small average difference, perhaps approaching 10% in color of skin under the upper arm, with women fairer.
In our racially diverse modern world, the small difference in coloration between men and women (women are softer with more sub-dermal fat, which keeps the blood further from the surface of the skin, while men tend to be ruddier), is dwarfed by racial differences, but fairness appears to remain a desired feminine trait all over the world, especially outside of European countries.
Another possibility is that the further north you go, the less portion of the year women gatherers can bring home the bacon so the more necessary are husband hunters to bag big game. And plowing in heavy northern soils requires a strong man, while lighter southern soils can be weeded by women with hoes. So, in the north there is more selection for beauty among women, while in the south (especially in sub-Saharan Africa hoe agricultural system), there is more selection for work among women.
I’d completely believe my theory if Eskimo women were universally acknowledged to be the world’s most beautiful.
and often contoured their own identity through a prism of anti-Blackness.
In reality, my impression is that people that the Washington Post would refer to as “Black” — sub-Saharans — did not take up a large space in the brains of Byzantines. I’m sure there were some blacks in Constantinople when it was most thriving, but they may have spent more time thinking about northern Slavic beauties.
… In 1174, Eustathios of Thessaloniki celebrated the diversity of the emperor’s entourage by listing all the various envoys from foreign lands present, including, “the Indian too, slightly tinged with black, and the Ethiopian with his whole skin burnt dark.” At the same time, the popular epic romance, “Digenes Akritas,” dating to the same period, described its hero’s Arab father as knowing the Romans’ (i.e. Byzantines’) language perfectly, having curly hair and saying that his complexion was “not black like the Ethiopians but fair and handsome.”
By the way, one of the leading companions of Mohammed was a blonde man named Suhayb the Roman.
While outsiders could be scorned for their dark complexion, dark skin wasn’t considered bad in all cases for the subjects of the Byzantine Empire. In fact, it was associated with the admirable strength of ancient heroes, like Odysseus, who Homer described as “black skinned” (melanochroous) in the “Odyssey.”
Odysseus would have gotten pretty tanned while sailing around for ten years.
But whether dark skin was seen as virtue or ugliness depended on one’s gender and sexuality.
A dark complexion was prized as a sign of masculinity: Manly men were said to have dark skin. But dark skin was considered unfeminine, and therefore dark-skinned women were viewed negatively
As opposed to today, when you never ever see black women writing op-eds in the Washington Post complaining that society values white women’s beauty too high.
— as were light-skinned men. Since white skin was associated with feminine beauty, when translated onto the male body it became a sign of queerness and “effeminacy.”
One Byzantine emperor, Manuel I Komnenos, was praised at length for his dark complexion. But his eulogy revealed the gendered view on dark skin in this period. Komnenos’s dark skin matched his dignity since it did not display “an effeminate paleness … having aspired to an appearance that one does not find on womanly or soft people.”
In other words, this emperor was always out and about doing emperor-stuff outdoors like training his army and thus was tanned, unlike some decadent emperors we could mention who spent all their time lounging indoors.
In general, Woke intellectuals seem to have more or less forgotten the process of tanning in their obsession with race (which does not exist).
In Greek, terms like “womanly” (gynaikias) and “soft” (malthakous) were slurs for effeminate men and for men who slept with men respectively. Malthakos was even a technical term in late antique medicine to pathologize same-gender desire, particularly for men acting as the passive partner in such acts.
… Like the emperor’s eulogizers, Choniates is clear to highlight Komnenos as someone who spent his time in the sun doing manly things. Yet he also walked a careful racial tightrope: wanting to praise the emperor’s dark skin — and therefore his masculinity — while also making sure not to associate him with “those exposed to the burning rays of the sun.” In other words, making sure to not associate the color of his skin with a distinctly racialized group, such as Black Africans, what Greek texts would have vaguely referred to as “Ethiopians” (literally meaning, “burnt-faced”).
I’m not clear on what the Greeks thought the reason was that Ethiopians were so dark. Sometimes they seem to sound as if they assume Ethiopians are just tanned, or that they got so suntanned during their life that the tan became permanent. Or maybe they had a proto-Lamarckian view: their ancestors passed their tans down.
It took humanity a ridiculous amount of time to come up with the theory of natural selection, which is only 163 years old today, which helps explain why thinking in terms of natural selection is still so alien to many in 2021.
This reference to the burning rays of the sun is crucial, because since antiquity it was believed that not only did the sun’s rays darken the skin, but the climate also altered people’s character. For example, those reared in the extreme cold and shade were understood as having been burned white by the cold, and Hippocrates even said that the men in these places became eunuchs and behaved like women.
Or they just had Russian babes on the brain all the time.
Thus, the understanding that dark skin was associated with masculinity and virility emerged from this broader dialogue involving both racialized and gendered identities.
… These associations between race thinking and gender were so central that in depictions of the Ethiopian Eunuch
The Ethiopian Eunuch was the treasurer to the Queen of Ethiopia. He visited Jerusalem and was converted to Christianity in the Acts of the Apostles. Christians were proud of making such an exotic and august convert. (Here’s an immature Rembrandt’s painting.)
(a figure assigned male at birth who was castrated in childhood)
You know, eunuchs weren’t just randomly “assigned male at birth” or they would have to castrate them.
from the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, the figure of the eunuch was rarely depicted as a Black person — even though “Ethiopian” was defined in contemporaneous dictionaries as literally meaning “a black person.” Instead, the Ethiopian eunuch was depicted as a White youth because it was pale whiteness that was associated with the appearance of eunuchs.
Eunuchs played an important role in the Byzantine Empire, understood not quite as men,
The Byzantines were into nonbinary thinking!
and often attacked with misogynistic language and stereotypes.
Those Byzantines were pretty Woke even by 2021 standards: castrating children is about as Woke as you can get.
Therefore, it was their disputed gender identity that came to determine the depiction of eunuchs’ skin by artists, deploying the same palettes used for the depiction of courtly women with pale, white skin and rosy cheeks.
It is in these rich and nuanced crossings of gender, sexuality and race that the Middle Ages can productively shatter many of our preconceptions — and also make us aware of the deep and interlaced histories of racism and transphobia.
So, the Byzantines castrating children was A-OK, but their stereotyping eunuchs was transphobic.
Got it! Stereotyping bad, castrating good.
… The Middle Ages offer crucial lessons to us today as we continue the struggle for trans rights, work against anti-Black police brutality and articulate the importance of teaching our history of racism in classrooms.
Please don’t defund Byzantine Studies in favor of Emmett Till studies! We Byzantine scholars are still relevant.
Here’s my 2005 book review of Frost.